Have you noticed how some people seem to be born knowing what they want to do with their life, and never waver from that direction? They spend their entire lives playing music, programming computers, directing films, or some other pursuit that they eventually master and become a guru or role model of?
Most of us aren’t so lucky, and spend years, if not decades, wondering what we want to do with ourselves. We might have several interests, and struggle to find a unifying theme that connects the various parts of our lives into a single, purpose-driven mindset.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take time to understand our motivation, influences, and goals. Understanding your life purpose focuses your life, your decisions, and your relationships in a way that offers deeper meaning and fulfillment. By clarifying your life purpose, you’ll be a step or two ahead of the rest of the population, or at least the ones who weren’t born knowing what they wanted out of life!
What is a Life Purpose?
The phrase “life purpose” means different things to different people. To some, it describes a life of service. To others, it refers to a person’s career. And some might argue that a life purpose is a way of saying that they feel called to dedicate themselves to a specific goal – be it spiritual, personal, relationship-oriented, or something else.
For me, a life purpose is similar to a mission statement. By choosing or defining our life purpose, we focus on the meaning of our lives. A life purpose allows us to bring greater depth, intention, and meaning to our actions and activities, and lead a life that resonates with who we are, who we want to become, and how we want to influence the world around us.
Why Having a Life Purpose Is Important
Having a life purpose gives your life a theme, much in the way a movie or novel might have a theme. The difference is, your purpose is a view from the inside – not how others see you but how you see yourself. “How do you want to be remembered?” becomes less important than “How do I want to feel about my life?”
Once you’ve chosen the theme of your life, you’re able to choose goals that support that theme. Having a life purpose puts daily activities, personal projects, work-related and family-related decisions in perspective. For example, if your purpose is to help people recover from trauma, a career in a health-related industry would make more sense than being a race car driver, with the possible exception of race car drivers who donate most of their income to charity.
Having a life purpose helps you clarify who you are and what you do
Is it possible to have more than one life purpose? Not at the same time. In the words of Paolo Coelho, one of my favorite authors “Choosing one path means abandoning others – if you try to follow every possible path you will end up following none.”
A life purpose centers your life around a goal, but it’s entirely up to you to decide what that goal is. Who are you now? What brings you joy? Who do you want to become? Only you can answer these questions, and only you can decide what your life purpose, or personal calling, is.
A life purpose can be as general or as specific as you want it to be. You may find that you add clarity and specificity as you change and your life purpose evolves with you.
Your life purpose expresses your uniqueness
There are as many different reasons for living as there are people on the planet. I’ve never met two people whose purposes in life are identical. They may be similar, such as teaching preschoolers. But dive below the surface, and you’ll discover different motivations, different flavors of the same idea. One teacher may love to see the social bonds that develop between the children, another might be interested in their academic growth. By expressing your unique identity, your life purpose has another amazing trait: it helps others understand who you are, and who you want to become.
A life purpose helps you leverage your strengths
We all have something we’re naturally good at. Some of us don’t even realize it. Many life coaches find that they’ve spent much of their life coaching, guiding, or mentoring others – including friends and families, often without realizing it. It’s not unusual to look at the childhood of someone famous and see the seeds that grew into their later success. What are your strengths, and how do they inform your life purpose?
A life purpose creates a pathway for personal development
People who take the time to define and refine their life purpose are often on a path of personal growth. As you travel along that path, you may discover nuances to your purpose that you didn’t realize before, which can, in turn, lead you down roads you didn’t imagine before. Your desire to help animals may lead you to veterinary school, which could lead you to animal sanctuaries, and then possibly to an elephant orphanage in Africa. At each point along the way, you’ll face challenges, meet people, and learn skills that help you grow as a person.
For more about the changes you may experience as you explore your life purpose, read my article The 5 Stages of Finding Your Life Purpose.
Having a life purpose keeps you proactive, rather than reactive
People with a life purpose tend to actively seek out development opportunities, careers, jobs, hobbies, friends, and mentors who align with their vision for their future self. Rather than sitting back and waiting for life to come to you, you’re actively creating the life you want.
A life purpose guides our personal projects
In his book Who Are You Really?: The Surprising Puzzle of Personality, Brian R. Little presents his theory that in addition to the age-old debate of nature versus nurture, our personal projects help to define who we are. Yes, we are influenced by our biology, our society, and the way we were raised. But we are also able to actively choose our personal projects, in the present moment, and those in turn help to define and influence who we are and who we become. Knowing your life purpose will help you choose the best personal projects to aide your personal development, and who doesn’t want that?
A life purpose helps you make decisions
Thinking about the impact of a decision – major or minor – on your life purpose gives you a personal compass or barometer for navigating changes.
Once I figured out the central theme of my different vocations, it became much easier to narrow down my life choices. It’s easy to agonize over life decisions, even small ones. Should I get a new couch? Which one? In the grander scheme of things, that couch only helps my life purpose by giving me a more comfortable place to watch TV, read, and cuddle with my cats (which is necessary for my rest and relaxation; I may like to work with people, but I’m still an introvert!)
If, like many of us, your key life decisions affect others such as a partner or children, understanding the life purpose of everyone involved can help you negotiate the compromises necessary to keep a relationship healthy and harmonious. (Note: children probably won’t have clarified their life purpose yet, though for some it may seem obvious.)
A life purpose helps you prioritize
Once you’ve defined your life purpose, you can prioritize what you want to do on any given day. Sure, there are life’s have-to-dos, like taxes, but beyond that . . . do you go shopping for a couch, or do you write a blog post instead?
I’m not saying that your entire day should revolve around your life purpose; be sure to make time for fun, family, and friendship. But knowing your life purpose can help with those days when there’s just too much to do, and not enough time. What really needs to get done and what can wait?
Having a life purpose can prevent boredom
If you choose your purpose wisely, it will resonate with you and naturally draw you forward. This means you’ll always have something you’re looking forward to doing – a class you’d like to take, a website to develop, a book to read, or volunteer work that resonates with what you’ve chosen to do with your life.
A life purpose gives you something to look forward to
In addition to understanding yourself better, expressing your vision to others, and enhanced decision-making, a life purpose gives you something to be excited for in the future. Some people embrace an almost childlike enthusiasm for the specific goals they develop within the context of their purpose, which brings more meaning and joy to their life, as well the lives of the people they interact with.
Having a life purpose helps you age better
I’m not making this up. A study published in the October 2017 issue of JAMA Psychology, on about 4,500 adults over age 50, found a correlation between higher sense of life purpose and lower risk of weakened grip strength and decreased walking speed. And it makes sense; having a life purpose keeps you active, mentally and physically, and gives you a reason to keep your health up.
Having a life purpose increases your resilience
Life goes crazy sometimes. Even the best-laid plans go awry. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had a “year from hell” at least once.
Although evidence is forthcoming, psychologists theorize that having a life purpose increases your chance of surviving nearly anything. German concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, a neurologist and psychiatrist, believed that having a sense of purpose in life helped him survive.
So, when life goes sideways, referring back to your life purpose can help you navigate those stormy waters and find your way again. It might be a different direction you were headed before, you might have different passengers along for the ride, but you’ll at least have taken advantage of the opportunity to steer the ship in a direction you want to go, rather than just going along for the ride.
A life purpose brings meaning to our lives
Frankl founded logotherapy, which is considered by some to be the Third Viennesse School of Psychotherapy, after Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology. Logotherapy is based upon the belief that finding meaning in life is the main motivating force in human behavior.
One of the tenets of logotherapy is that we have the freedom to find meaning in what we do and what we experience; a variation on the concept of free will. I believe that this can go in either direction; we can find meaning in what we do, or we can do what brings us meaning.
A life purpose helps you give back to the world
Giving back to the world doesn’t have to be part of your life purpose, but often is. Humans are social creatures. In general, people find meaning in how they relate to the people around them and the environment they live in.
Think back to the example of those who have experienced trauma. For a time, their purpose will be healing and recuperating. Once they’ve achieved that, they often choose to give back to the world in some way, which follows the tenets of logotherapy, bringing new meaning to their traumatic experience.
Even those of us who haven’t experienced trauma often have a desire to help others in some way, whether as a parent, teacher, colleague, mentor, healer, or other role. Understanding your motivation for doing so, and what it is you want to bring to the world, helps you reap many of the benefits listed above.
A life purpose can lead to happiness
It’s been said that three things lead to happiness: someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to. A life purpose gets you two out of three! In the words of Martin Luther King Jr “Those who are not looking for happiness are the most likely to find it, because those who are searching forget that the surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others.”
As you can see, there are many reasons to have a life purpose, and few reasons not to. What advantage of having a life purpose resonates with you most? Are there benefits to having a life purpose that aren’t listed here? Comment below!